Tom Dorrance

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‘Inspiration is hard to find. When your heroes are discreet’

Whenever you read or hear of someone who has made a great contribution to a particular pursuit or discipline, oftentimes that notoriety is attached to winning, be it medals, trophies, certificates or whatever. Winning in itself suggests a contest. A contest suggests conflict and thus turmoil…all these things are contrary to the massive contribution that Tom Dorrance has made to the world of horses as it relates to their interaction with humans.
Born in 1910, he grew up in the northeast corner of Oregon, fifty miles from the nearest town. For over fifty years, farming and ranch work filled his life: “I never did consider myself a horse trainer and I still don’t. I just grew up with cattle and horses. I spent a lot of time alone with them and when I was alone, that was when I learned a lot of things. If I made a mistake, there wasn’t somebody to clean up after me. It was important that I get the job done.”
This maxim is the same that has spilled over into Toms’ work with other people. On the surface it would appear that he has no interest in promoting his views or ideas to future generations of horse people.However, I believe that is too simplistic a view. We are such a goal-oriented society that it is sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees. When Tom says:” I’m just living. If anybody gets any good out of it, that’s great. I don’t want to force it on others. I don’t work with a horse that way and I don’t work with people that way.” This quote alone speaks volumes about the manner in which Tom Dorrance approaches life.
In the human’s eyes, the horse has been viewed in many different ways, from the lowliest beast of burden thru to the almost godlike status of mythology. The horse has been a warrior, a farm worker, a circus act, a means of transportation…against his own nature he has carried humans to safety thru the extremes of natures elements. Operating in the main willingly despite the ignorance of the human in understanding the incredible potential of what Tom Dorrance would call True Unity that the horse can and will offer, if given the opportunity.
Tom Dorrance has been ‘offering back’ to the horse all his life, in his own words:”it’s so simple, it’s difficult.”
Having said that, this ‘simplicity’ is loaded with subtleties.
Listen closely when Tom says:” It seems like people expect the horse to know what they ask it to do, while the horse has no idea what is being asked. They expect the horse to already know.”
The three elements Tom mentions:
When trying to help people ‘get with’ their horses: Feel, Timing and Balance, are in themselves so deep and variable that even a vague attempt at explaining the concept will often bring on a headache!
At this point the reader may be wondering, ’then why are we even bothering to try?’ The answer is deep within all of us. We all have a capacity and capability to do more, to understand on a more complex level. What we don’t all have is the fortitude and deep desire to dig deep and search. This is not meant as a criticism, we are all different, thankfully. I personally enjoy being around music, even working in the industry, yet I don’t have that deep desire to dig in and search further. I enjoy playing and writing a song, but I don’t feel the need to learn more, maybe read music or play another instrument. I am not driven the way I am with trying to understand more of the relationship between horse and human. I’ve heard some beautiful music and wonderful voices. I wouldn’t want to be in a place where I would never hear them again, but…I’ve seen Tom Dorrance work with horses.
Tom will often mention his friend Ray Hunt. How much fun it was to give Ray direction in the early days and watch him develop. Now I’ve read some marvelous books and heard some outstanding poetry and I wouldn’t want to be in a place where I never had that opportunity again, but…..I’ve seen Ray Hunt ride.
For 23 years of my life I taught Martial Arts. I mention this because although the very essence of this practice is steeped in the esoteric, much of what we actually see is a thin veneer of the truth. People often ask me why, after coaching so many people to championship status I no longer teach or practice.The simple answer is I went to a Ray Hunt clinic and realized that I wanted to direct my energy toward better horsemanship. Movies and TV have shown the Martial Art in its grossest element, as nothing more than a means of crushing your opponent. Competition has diluted the Art into a way of collecting memorabilia in the form of trophies, certificates and medals. In oriental philosophy a ‘Way’ is a reference to a mode of living as opposed to a rigid method.
I have heard of people who would dilute Toms ‘Way’. They would rather plot a course of action whilst working with the horse in a modular system i.e. 1+1=2, A is followed by B, then C etc.
I don’t believe I’ve seen Tom address a horse project the same way twice. I have seen him pause and reflect on similarities in behavior. I’ve heard him try to help the human see where there may be an opening, a moment in time where an opportunity to change is presented, but of course the balance is so fragile, that the moment is often lost before the words are spoken.
What Tom shows us does not translate into formulas. Exact procedures are not part of his ‘Way’. If he was a Chef you could spend a lifetime trying to find his recipes, and you would still miss that pinch of magic he sprinkles in along the way. When someone comes to him with a horse project he might ask some questions or he might not, he may make some suggestions or he may not, but you can be sure that he will fix it up for the human to dig in and search for themselves. And when the lesson is learned, he will give credit to the student, (both horse and human), not the teacher.
Tom has said,” It seems like most people working with horses are working from the person to the horse.I start with the horse and try to figure out where he is. The horse tells me where he is and then I try to figure out how to present myself to the horse in a way that’s understandable to the horse.”
My aim in writing this essay is to encourage people to dig in and search. Read Toms’ book, ‘True Unity’, watch his new video ‘Greetings from Tom Dorrance’. There is a wealth of knowledge within. The book will support you in your search for a clearer understanding, but it may take years for some of the text to become clear to the reader. I believe someone wanted to re-edit the book ‘True Unity’, put it into a more understandable format. I saw the results of a new revised chapter; not surprisingly it had lost all the subtlety of text and phrasing and, in that revised ‘clarity’ had fallen into the well of the mundane.
I cannot even begin to put into words what Tom really means about how we should be working with our horses. I wish I could say ‘this is how Tom Dorrance would do”, but I can’t. I have my own interpretation of his work and it isn’t satisfying me, I’m so far behind it’s discouraging sometimes, but..that is where I’m prepared to dig in and search. I heard Ray Hunt say, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m not lost.” I’ve also heard Tom say, “You’ve got more than you started with and that’s good.” This in itself gives me heart.

I’ve had some long visits with Tom in the last couple of years. I swear I’m asking the same questions, (in a different disguise), and yet he never tires of trying to help me search for the answers. I believe much of his ‘Way’, follows the recommendation of give a man a fish and you can feed him, teach a man to fish and you can feed a family (or whatever that is!)
My education doesn’t stop with just horses around Tom; I’m finding a different view on life in general. Somehow it’s all wrapped up in his ‘Way’, his manner, his presence.
Many years ago I was performing in a Tennessee Williams play in England, the cast were all very intellectual, (beats me how I got in), and we had many long evenings running into mornings discussing life, the universe and everything. The subject matter of the play was intense and harrowing. At the end of the run, the cast were pretty well worn and the heroines statement "I'll always depend on the kindness of strangers', reverberated throughout. A friend and cast member gave me a book on parting, inside was the inscription, "Inspiration is hard to find, when your heroes are discreet." I've thought a lot about this over the years. I feel very lucky to have found Tom.
To many of us who are involved in this 'way' of working with horses, it has often seemed curious if not extraordinary that although Tom is known throughout the world and is recognized as the man who 'started it all'; revolutionizing modern day horse training. He has never been 'celebrated' in a commercial sense. It took about six years to write the one and only book in print and about the same time to produce the one and only video.
There is nothing demanding about Tom. Yet, when you're around him there's an aura of life and wisdom that enriches the soul. This isn't to say you have to be in a state of genuflection whilst around Tom. He'll be the first to make a humorous observation and I know he enjoys a good joke. But where the moment demands some serious reflection, you are immediately drawn into the quality of understanding Tom has for life. For the longest time I thought I might learn to be the horseman Tom is and then as time goes on and he tells me more of things that he has done with horses in the past, I realize I started too late. But that doesn't bother me now, it used to. Now I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing and growing with the process. There's a lot to learn and I'm enjoying the trip. Some of this essay deals with my struggle to learn. This is my way of encouraging others to 'dig in and search'. They may have more success and if that is so then I'm sure Tom would be happy. In Toms' book 'True Unity', there is a chapter called "Feel the Whole Horse", where he discusses communication with the animal and understanding where they may be troubled. He tells us how we need to look at both the physical and mental aspects of this trouble but also search deeper and look to a third factor, spirit.
A horse can offer a tremendous amount and we can look pretty good hands when we're up there in the saddle, but we can also be missing a great deal, a huge part of what the horse can offer is deep inside and to get that part, to get that wonderful feeling of partnership, the human has to search deep within themselves. This alone is one of the main reasons that Tom's work is so complex and hard to fathom, for although he can do 'it', he can only act as a guide to us.
There is always a certain amount of physical direction, which can be pretty clear and direct when we get our bodies to assume the necessary position, whether it is with our hands, legs or seat. But the feel of the horse and what we offer in return, the timing of when to make that offer, the balance of how much we should do; all this has to come from within the person. For sure there is another element, which can come into play, we may refer to this as experience. This 'Way' cannot be loaded in and switched on like a new program in your old computer. The heart of the matter is deep within the person, the will and desire to come through with something special, something that is to a greater degree inexpressible/ineffable.
One of the more incredible things that Tom never ceases to amaze me with is his innate ability to KNOW when to quit and move on. He may be working with someone on stopping his or her horse for instance; under his direction the rider may have helped the horse to simply wind down to a stop. Right there I've seen Tom praise the horse and rider and move on. Initially I used to think, 'all right let's get the next step and get that horse stopping. But Tom would have already moved on to the next 'project'. Sometime later, maybe hours later or the next day, he would come back to that person and their horse and things would be 'just right'. The horse would be ready to stop when the person asked. Tom knows when to quit, when to let that horse know he's a winner. We as responsible horsemen need to catch up on that. Being focused and paying attention whilst around Tom is the best lesson you can learn. So much of what he says, (or doesn't say), can be missed and lost if we are not right in the moment. It is also important to cast off any ego. Earlier in my visits with Tom I would find myself "filling in' for my inexperience with statements such as:" Well, I usually do that but…etc". It didn't take me long to figure out that Tom is not in the least bit interested in that kind of line. His concern is what you are doing 'right now', in the moment. The crucial thing is to accept this, remember what is offered and develop from it.
Regarding technique. Although there are a variety of procedures you might wish to be familiar with before embarking on a horse project. None of them will amount to much in regard to building a true communication with the horse unless these procedures/techniques are employed with those three attributes of Feel, Timing and Balance. Toms' words.."Adjust to fit the situation, which best fits the occasion", ring loud and clear. The horses sense of self preservation is such that if more of our handling and riding of the animal were done with consideration of this trait, we would be able to achieve so much more and most importantly, without undue trauma or turmoil.
A final thought from Tom: "I encourage people to draw on themselves, experimenting and exploring. That's what will help you keep your horse entertained and learning different things. A horse should be learning something new all the time. You can't get it all. It's an ongoing learning experience, an art or science; I prefer to call it an art. It all has to come from within."
When I began composing this essay it had another title, which in retrospect seems more fitting to place as a coda, it is an old Chinese proverb: "When you drink of the spring, be thankful for the source."



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